Mid-Week Links: Build It and They Will Come

mill valley

Marin County

Well it looks like the other news organizations passed right on by the development news this week, and there’s no transit news to speak of. I suppose, then, these are the highlights from this week’s IJ.

  • The Grady Ranch debacle has reached New Yorker’s ears. The game of telephone, of course, has done wonders for our county’s image as an insular enclave for the granola-munching wealthy. Back in Marin, there is still debate as to whether opponents abused the system or not, or even whether they should be to blame. (NYT, IJ)
  • In the fallout of Grady Ranch, county staff want to create a panel to cut red tape and streamline permitting, and the supervisors seem to be on board. The results likely won’t mean much for developers in incorporated areas, who often need council approval to open a sandwich shop. (IJ)
  • Fully 85% of Marin’s land is protected from development, according to a new Greenbelt Alliance study, the most in any Bay Area county. Only 12.7% of our land is urbanized, and only 0.7% is at risk of development. (IJ)
  • Michael Rock, town manager and public works director of Fairfax, has resigned in order to pursue a position in what I can only presume is the far less interesting Lomita, CA. His last day as manager will be the June 22 budget meeting. (IJ, Fairfax)
  • Sausalito will not rezone a small area of old town for housing development after all. The two parcels in question could have accommodated 18 units of affordable housing but will continue in their role as offices. (IJ)
  • Under pressure from the feds, Novato’s remaining pot dispensary will close, leaving only one dispensary operating in the county. (IJ)
  • The $950 million Highway 101 widening project chugs forward, but the last $177 million hasn’t been found. At least CalTrans still has $20.5 million to repave 8.5 miles of the freeway from Vista Point to Lucky Drive. (Press-Democrat, IJ)
  • A San Rafael native has been enlivening the streetscape of Washington, DC, by playing the violin to passersby from his rowhome’s balcony. (Patch)
  • And…: Fifteen office buildings totalling about 710,000 square are up for sale in Marin. (IJ) … Terrorism, not the threat of bridge collapse, is the reason you can’t walk across the Bridge on its 75th. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • MTC and ABAG have approved Plan Bay Area. It now goes out for environmental review before final approval in April. (SF Chronicle)
  • The San Francisco Bay Area has a surplus of capital looking for new tech start-ups but restrictive housing policies drive up rents, which drive up wages, which inflates start-ups’ costs of doing business, which drives down the number of new start-ups to invest in, and that’s bad for everyone.  (Forbes via Planetizen)
  • The State Senate will vote today on the three-foot passing law, requiring drivers pass bikers with at least three feet of clearance. (Cyclelicious)
  • The neighborhood planning battles of Seattle bear a striking resemblance to the planning issues faced by Marin’s small towns. (Crosscut)
  • Young people are moving away from the car. Has the driver’s seat lost its old magic? (Washington Post)
  • BART’s long-term plans include express trains, better stations, and shorter headways. (Examiner)

ABAG, Let’s Talk About Corte Madera

Image from Plan Bay Area; drawing inspired by Lydia DePillis

It’s tiny, but Corte Madera is still important.

To ABAG Staff:

Congratulations!  You’ve been invited to testify at a couple of Corte Madera town council meetings.  I know it’s far away and I know it’s a tiny town, but please resist the urge to blow off these meetings.  Corte Madera deserves to know why it is projected to grow and how it’s expected to grow when it feels as though it’s already built out.  Luckily, the town council isn’t terribly familiar with the Plan Bay Area process.  For example, Corte Madera’s representative to ABAG, Councilwoman Carla Condon, only recently learned that Plan Bay Area involves more agencies than just ABAG!  There is a great opportunity to educate the council on what you do, why you do it, why it’s important for Corte Madera, and why it’s important for the region.

To prepare you for the task, I’ve assembled a bit of a cheat sheet of the questions you’ll get and what you should do in preparation to answer.  Each of these could be its own article, but hopefully I can point you in the right direction to find this out on your own.

Why is Plan Bay Area necessary?

Don’t simply say that the state mandated it, and don’t simply parrot a line about Smart Growth.  Give the background on the subject.  For reference, make sure to read the articles Planetizen has gathered under its SB 375 tag, including the ones critical of the legislation.  That’s your homework, because you need to argue for SB 375 just as hard as you argue for ABAG.

In short, Plan Bay Area is necessary to do exactly what makes the most sense: concentrate growth where there already is infrastructure to support residents; to build up our central cities; to reduce particulate pollution; to promote active living for a range of public health reasons; and to ensure growth builds up our region rather than weakens it.

Doesn’t higher density growth lead to more greenhouse gases?

This is an argument popularized in Marin by Mill Valley resident Bob Silvestri, a kind of home-grown Wendell Cox.  His opus on the subject argues that low-density housing is more environmentally friendly than medium-density housing.  Mayor Bob Ravasio believes this, too.

Though there are a number of problems with his argument, the least obvious is that Silvestri argues as though no growth is a viable alternative.  Of course constructing buildings produces greenhouse gases, but the point is to reduce per-capita greenhouse gas production, not absolute production.  This means moving people to their feet where possible and transit where not, and that means that growth should happen with moderately higher densities.

Be prepared to answer criticisms like Silvestri’s.

Doesn’t ABAG want Corte Madera to become a high-rise city?

Assocated questions are: isn’t Corte Madera already built out?  Where would we put more people?  ABAG’s vice president stuck a foot in her mouth when she answered this question with a finger pointed in the air, saying, If you say your town is built out, then build up.  For towns in Marin, her statement played right into the image of ABAG as a soul-sucking, social-experimenting, power-mad agency that wants to destroy town character.  Never, ever, say that Marin needs to build up.

Not only does it sound bad to Marinites, but it’s also not accurate. Instead of such a ham-fisted answer, you need to emphasize that Plan Bay Area wants to move the region back to how we used to build cities. To illustrate, talk about the parts of Marin that Marinites like.  We love the places like downtown Mill Valley, downtown Corte Madera, downtown San Anselmo, downtown Larkspur, etc.  When we think about small-town feel, we think of these commercial strips.  Contrast this with those areas we don’t like as much: Smith Ranch, Terra Linda, Vintage Oaks.  The distinguishing factor between the two types of areas are what they were oriented around. The places Marinites like are old transit-oriented development, built around train stations and people walking.  The places Marinites don’t like are car-oriented development, built around parking lots.

What Plan Bay Area envisions is a return to traditional town planning in those places that were built with the parking lot in mind.  In Corte Madera, allowing residential uses on the parking lots of the Town Center shopping mall, even if they’re just townhomes, would be more than enough growth for many RHNA cycles and certainly more than expected over the next 28 years of Plan Bay Area.

People don’t walk or bike now, so why would new residents?

To address this question, bring solid research and charts.  Remember that the densities you’re talking about for Corte Madera are in the range of 4,000 people per square mile, and that it’s proximity to transit amenities and bicycle infrastructure more than population densities that will induce people to use their feet and the bus.

Take, for example, the new study from the Arizona Department of Transportation.  Even at very low housing densities, moving people closer together brings down the number of vehicle miles traveled.  The goal isn’t to eliminate driving but to give people the option to walk, bike, or use transit without it being an undue burden.  Also, it’s also not solely focused on commutes.  Someone who drives to work but walks to Corte Madera Cafe on Saturday – Plan Bay Area promotes more of that.

Oh, and nearly one in five commutes in Corte Madera are already by transit, bike, or foot, so someone’s doing some walking.

What good has ABAG ever done for Corte Madera?

Talk to the Council about what ABAG does on a regular basis for Marin County as a whole and what they expect to do for Corte Madera in the future. ABAG, for example, manages federal grant money as a metropolitan planning organization.  It also provides financial services for members; provides research data on population and housing in the region; and a host of other things (PDF).  If appropriate, talk about the role of Corte Madera’s representative to ABAG and how you would love to work with her more.

What is the methodology used to create your growth numbers?

Bring a modelling expert with you who can answer questions about growth methodology.  This is important, so I’ll say it again: bring a modelling expert with you to answer questions.  For Corte Madera, the whole dispute boils down to what is happening inside the modelling black box.  The council is worried that your agency will destroy Corte Madera’s character out of negligence, so bring someone who can answer their questions and open up that black box.

Corte Madera has some legitimate questions that need legitimate answers.  You cannot sleepwalk through this presentation or the Q&A afterwards.  You will likely face a hostile public that will call you a fascist for doing regional planning.  You cannot zone that out either.  You need to be engaged and engaging.  You need to educate the Council about what One Bay Area is doing, why they’re doing it, how they’re doing it, and what it all means for Corte Madera and Marin.

In all honesty, I’d love to have the answers to some of these questions.  What is the proper role of a representative to ABAG?  What is the exact work that went into Corte Madera’s projected growth?  I’ll look forward to your testimony almost as much as the Council, I’m sure.

In any event, this is your chance to change the conversation in Corte Madera and the rest of the Bay Area.  This is your chance to reboot your messaging.  This is your chance to justify your agency’s existence.  Don’t let that chance slip away.

Tempest in a Teapot

Teapot, W1042

By Black Country Museums

When Plan Bay Area released its draft preliminary growth numbers (yes, they’re that speculative), a cry went out around Marin that ABAG wants to cram growth down the gullet of stable and ungrowing county.  For years, Marin has lost jobs and so either lost housing units or grew at a snail’s pace.  We aren’t like the bankrupt towns of the East Bay or Delta, with vast tracts of new, identical houses.  Sadly, if regional and state agencies have  their way such reckless and unrestrained growth would come to our counties and you might as well kiss the Marinite way of life goodbye.

It’s a good narrative, but as with most sensationalist narratives of the government losing all reason, it’s pure nonsense.

Plan Bay Area, the sustainable communities strategy mandated by California, needs to accomplish a simply stated task: find out where people will live and work in 30 years, funnel that growth away from open space, and provide an effective way for people to get around without a car.  The first task requires projections of job and housing growth, the second utilizes the state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process, and the third uses grants to localities that want to expand or maintain their transit infrastructure.

The fear among opponents is that projections of housing growth will mean that the state will mandate that level of growth.  I suppose it’s an easy mistake to make.  RHNA numbers are released in a similar fashion, and those really are mandates for zoning to accommodate the growth.  Thankfully, Plan Bay Area projections are intended to inform the whole sustainability strategy; they don’t constitute growth mandates.  Yet even if they did, they would mandate slower growth for the county than has occurred in the recent past, though you wouldn’t know it listening to the plan’s opponents.

Between 2000 and 2010, Marin added about 622 housing units per year.  Nearly every incorporated town (excepting Larkspur and Belvedere) and every unincorporated village added housing over the past decade.  Plan Bay Area projects that growth will slow to only 272 units per year, less than half the rate of the past decade.  This rate of growth includes both affordable and market-rate housing.  RHNA will be informed by these projections, and so will mandate even less housing.

Besides, the “mandates” aren’t even mandates.  As we’ve discussed before, RHNA requires a city to do two things: zone for affordable housing, and come up with a plan to maybe have it get built.  That rarely happens.

So Marin will likely grow faster than Plan Bay Area projects, will likely be required to build less affordable housing than it has been required to in the past, and so things will carry on in much the same way they always have.  There is no vast usurpation of local control, there is no growth mandate handed down from One Bay Area, there is no UN plot to confiscate your home.  You may notice fewer news stories about grants for roads and more about grants for bikes and transit, and I guess that will be kind of disruptive.

Mid-Week Links: The Subdivisions

by xspindoc

Marin County

  • LucasFilm has pulled its Grady Ranch proposal and will sell the land as affordable housing thanks to NIMBY opposition, stating, “Marin is a bedroom community and is committed to building subdivisions, not businesses.” Ouch. (Pacific Sun)
  • The Town of Fairfax has a new General Plan.  Among other things, the plan gives downtown businesses the opportunity to build second-story apartment units by right, rather than seeking special approval. (Town Manager)
  • Supervisor Arnold wants to know why growth projections for Marin have fluctuated so wildly in the Plan Bay Area draft SCS, and also why they are so out of line with historic norms. If the assumptions for Marin are flawed, she writes, then the whole process for the Bay Area is flawed. (IJ)
  • The March 28 MCCMC meeting offered opponents of housing quotas and ABAG to vent their frustrations against the regional agency. In the end, they also got leftover cookies. (Twin Cities Times)
  • Staying within ABAG is not just good for Marin – it’s good for the region, because what worries us ought to worry the rest of the Bay Area. (IJ)
  • Marin’s Local Coastal Program has gone through a four year epic journey of Coastal Commission and West Marin politics, public comments, criticism that it does too much (or too little), and even a splash of dominion theology as the county has worked to update the decades-old document. If you need some catching up, you may want to start here. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: The AT&T Park ferry ride is getting too complicated, and too expensive, what with online reservations and a new convenience fee. (IJ) … A sidewalkless street in Homestead Valley is getting some sidewalks. (IJ) … What sort of light should a bicycle have? (Mercury News)

The Greater Marin

  • The finances and projections of California High Speed Rail are under scrutiny by noted rail opponent Representative Darryl Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee. (Politico)
  • San Francisco’s Transit Effectiveness Project SFMTA will give Muni buses signal priority by next year. I’m hoping GGT gets in on that. (Streetsblog) [edit - contrary to Streetsblog's summary, signal priority is a related but separate program from TEP.]
  • Someone in San Francisco wants to park a tiny, 130 square foot house in a driveway. The plans are actually quite nice and would make a lovely second unit, though I thought the minimum dwelling size under California state law was 160 square feet. (SFist)
  • Little City Gardens will be San Francisco’s first real urban farm now that the city has approved a zoning change for the market. It will sell and grow its produce on the same property. (SPUR)
  • Cotati’s downtown revitalization plan will move forward, but because it uses redevelopment funds the vote is up for state approval. (Press-Democrat)
  • The Southern California Association of Governments – ABAG and MTC’s Los Angelino cousin – approved its version of Plan Bay Area.  The sustainable communities strategy will spend half its transportation funding on mass transit rather than cars over the next 25 years, though a number of communities said it didn’t go far enough. Streetsblog has details. (SF Chronicle, Streetsblog)

Mid-Week Links: Plans from On High

image from NASA

Plan Bay Area

  • Pacific Sun has a wonderful rundown, as they so often do, of the issues surrounding One Bay Area and Plan Bay Area – from the workshops disrupted by tea party agitators to historical context to just what the plan actually hopes to achieve.
  • One Bay Area has cut job and housing growth projections for Marin, with significant housing cuts in some towns and dramatic increases in others.  Town planners will be consulted for the next draft figures, to be released in May. (IJ)
  • However, Supervisor Judy Arnold, Marin’s alternate representative to ABAG,  called Plan Bay Area’s projected job increase in Marin unrealistic, citing a shrinking, rather than growing, job pool in the county. County staff will examine the numbers, and a decision will then be made whether to proceed with an appeal. (IJ)

Marin County

  • The Downtown San Rafael BID will get a $250,000 cash infusion for advertising and events after Keep It Local San Rafael settled their lawsuit against Target and Cal-Pox. (IJ)
  • San Anselmo is still tied in knots as it tries to tighten design review ordinances.  Neighbors are still upset over the addition to Councilmember Kroot’s home. (Ross Valley Reporter)
  • Joe Casalnuevo, who successfully challenged county ordinances over whether split lots needed to pay in-lieu affordable housing fees, has taken Marin to court over the fight, alleging $60,000 in damages and time lost fighting the fee. (IJ)
  • MCBC is taking volunteers for its annual Bike Locally Challenge, though at six months it may be a bit long for a promotion.  Arlington County, VA, does a month-long Car Free Diet that involves bikes and transit – perhaps Marin Transit could cross-promote? (Pacific Sun, County of Arlington)
  • Copyright law overrode local preference in Tiburon, where the council approved CVS’s red sign, overturning the Design Review Board’s ruling that it should be a gray and white sign. (IJ)
  • And…: Fairfax will at last install cameras for town council meetings. (IJ) … Ross Valley School District residents will vote on a $149 parcel tax in June to help stave off a budget crisis in the district. (Patch) … Marin Transit tweaks Novato and Terra Linda bus routes. (IJ) … Joseph Eichler designed more than just tract homes. (Bay Citizen)

The Greater Marin

  • While the focus of California High Speed Rail has been on just about everything but its utility, Central Valley cities are clamoring for the infrastructure. (LA Times, Fresno Bee)
  • Midcoast San Mateo is struggling with Plan Bay Area, which is including a county-designated Priority Development Area in the rural region.  Regional officials insist the rural development area is about improving infrastructure, not housing development. (San Mateo County Times)
  • Transit signage in the Bay Area are poor, and that’s actually no surprise at all.  Though MTC is on it, it’s unlikely Marin will see much of the fruit of their labor given our county’s current transit state of affairs. (Transportation Nation)
  • More people took public transit in 2011 than in 2010, the most since 1957, and that bodes well for the future of transportation and our cities. (New York Times)

ABAG Options that Work

Cutting our ties

Corte Madera’s departure from ABAG won’t solve any of their problems – indeed, it will compound them.  Despite the town’s protestations that housing mandates are imposed upon them by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats that don’t understand the town, the fact remains that by quitting ABAG they have simply gone from an organization where they had a say to a state housing department where they have no say.

If Corte Madera were serious about regaining local control over whether it will build any housing or not, it would look for ways to work within the system while seeking its reform.  In their ill-informed haste, Corte Madera left behind two important tools in the ABAG toolbox: forming a subregion, and allocation trades.

Shrink the fish pond

A subregion is a group of governments assigned their state housing needs as a block, and the subregion may then divvy up the allocations between members as they see fit.  This gives local governments significantly more control over planning decisions as staff is necessarily closer to the ground and even the smallest minnow of a town has a greater voice in a smaller fish pond.

An effective Marin subregion would need to involve the whole of the county’s towns and cities.  Policy decisions, such as factors for the allocation methodology, would be decided by either the county’s ABAG delegation or the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers, consisting of all 60 of Marin’s elected councilmembers and supervisors.  Either way gives the process legitimacy, something ABAG is sorely lacking, and allows the public to be more involved decisionmaking.

Napa took advantage of the subregional option this RHNA cycle, forming a subregion for precisely the reasons of local control and to address local concerns.  Their draft methodology will likely include factors such as water availability and traffic, both serious concerns in Marin as well, and will involve significant negotiations between individual jurisdictions.

Alas, the time to form a subregion has passed.  Protests against this last RHNA cycle focused on the state’s supposed usurpation of local control and the deleterious effects thereof and so never got around to more productive lines of thought like forming a subregion.  Even if Marin were to establish a subregion tomorrow, the upcoming RHNA cycle would not take the subregion into account.  This process requires patience, and the blinkered opponents of RHNA are motivated by righteous anger, not calculated political moves.

Trading spaces

Luckily, ABAG allows localities who find their allocations particularly onerous to trade away some of their housing allocations, so long as a jurisdiction doesn’t entirely abdicate its responsibility for new housing, compensates the receiving jurisdiction for the burden, and maintains the overall mix of affordable housing. ABAG must approve the transfer, but is not required to under state law – the Southern California Area Governments, ABAG’s SoCal counterpart, does not require review, for example, though it does require the jurisdictions to be contiguous.

While there weren’t any trades based on taste last cycle, as there would be if Corte Madera involved, Mountain View did transfer some of its allocation to Santa Clara County for practical reasons.  Moffett Field was projected to add jobs, but the town had no jurisdiction over the facility, which was in unincorporated county land, and protested that it was responsible for what amounted to federal workforce housing.  Santa Clara, as the proper jurisdiction over Moffett Field, agreed to take over responsibility for the allocated units.

It’s unclear whether Corte Madera could be part of such trades while outside ABAG, as it would be the only jurisdiction in the Bay Area not part of the association.  Rather, as a jurisdiction receiving its allocation directly from the state it would likely be obligated to zone for the whole batch.  Town staff are preparing a report on what happens now that Corte Madera has left ABAG, which should shine more light on that issue.

Either option – forming a subregion, or initiating trades – requires political leadership that can reach across jurisdictional lines and convince those who want to work within the system.  It requires patience, and faith in the system, to lead reform, yet by acting so recklessly and counterproductively Corte Madera has shown it cannot be that leader.  Unless Marin finds such a leader, opponents of regionalism will continue to burn the only bridges they have back to local control.

A Lesson in Overreaction

There’s an old saying: “Think local, act global.”  It’s a pithy reminder that everything we do, from our brand of toilet paper to how we structure our cities, effects everyone else.

I think someone forgot to tell Corte Madera that.

This past Tuesday, Corte Madera voted to quit ABAG, effective July, 2013.  The Council voted out of frustration at housing mandates it says are killing the town’s character, out of anger at Plan Bay Area, and out of a belief that Corte Madera is perfect.  Yet its actions will have no effect on any of the issues at stake in this debate and will hinder the town’s capacity to shape those issues.

Corte Madera will still need to zone for more housing.  Although ABAG is the administrator of housing requirements for this region, the mandate to zone comes from the state government.  By leaving ABAG, Corte Madera will receive its mandates directly from Sacramento, exposing it to the whim of a truly unelected and unaccountable body.  Within ABAG, Corte Madera had a voice in the association’s General Assembly.  It could contest mandates, allocation formulae, assumptions, and more.  Although staff has a major role to play in governments across the region, at least ABAG staff worked for local elected officials and were answerable to them.

Beyond ABAG, Corte Madera is still a part of the other three regional organizations – Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the Bay Coastal Development Commission – which are all working on Plan Bay Area.  Indeed, Corte Madera will be materially affected by decisions made by these agencies but will lack any voice at the proceedings, as it has no representative on any of their boards.

If Corte Madera is subject to SB375, it will need to work directly with staff at each of those regional agencies to formulate its greenhouse gas reduction plans, using up valuable regional and town staff time simply to duplicate efforts and wasting taxpayer money to do so.

Not that any of this will matter for a while.  Although details are a bit sketchy, it seems as though Corte Madera will still be subject to ABAG mandates for the upcoming housing needs allocation.  If you listened to media reports you’d never know it, but there will be no material difference to Corte Madera as a result of these actions.  The town will still be subject to Plan Bay Area and will still receive housing allocations from ABAG until the following allocation in 2020.

The straw that broke this camel’s back were preliminary draft growth projections being used in Plan Bay Area’s discussion phase.  They were too high, a problem brought up with force at Tuesday’s council meeting, but ABAG heard the voice of the town and others and will revise its numbers significantly downward in the next draft.  Those original numbers were released with no methodology, another complaint of Corte Maderans, but ABAG will release its second draft methodology this month.  Housing allocation numbers for the next cycle haven’t even been drafted yet, but they were brought up time and again as though the town already knew it would need to zone for hundreds of new units.  These are fake problems ginned up by Corte Madera’s ABAG representative, Councilmember Carla Condon, who should be fighting within the system rather than railing against it.

So what did Corte Madera get with its resolution on Tuesday?  Headlines, extra costs, and a muted voice.  Corte Madera will still receive housing allocations from ABAG in 2013 and the state in 2020, it will still be subject to Plan Bay Area, it will still be under regional organizations, but it has forfeited its voice in any of these decisions and has thrust upon its staff state-mandated planning requirements currently performed by ABAG.  The council gets to look like a hero to the county’s paper progressives, but its petulant overreaction to nonexistent problems will only compound the town’s woes.

Mid-Week Links: This Part Hurts

This is a rather long presentation, but it lays out the essence of how car traffic hurts culture, hurts neighborhoods, and what to do about it.  I’ve been to talks like this in DC but this is the first time I can really share one with you.  And if you work in transportation or the planner’s office, this ought to count as continuing education, so bust out the earphones and popcorn.

Marin County

  • Former Supervisor Hal Brown died this week of cancer, and the respect Ross Valley and Marin had for him was evident in editorials and memoria. (Pacific Sun)
  • Mill Valley urbanists, attention!  Have a say in the direction of your town and join one of the Mill Valley 2040 committees charged with drafting the new general plan.  Applications are due March 14, so get on it. (IJ, Town of Mill Valley)
  • San Anselmo urbanists can have a bit of their own fun, too, as this Saturday the town council will weigh resident priorities for the next 2-5 years at a special meeting from 10am-12pm.  After the meeting, a survey will be put online for people who could not make it. (Patch)
  • SPAWN, a nonprofit whose goal is to restrict construction near creeks had its own San Geronimo demonstration home red-tagged by the county for building without a permit next to a creek. Neighbors that had run afoul of the group in the past were furious at the hypocrisy. (IJ)
  • There may still be some useful Q&A to be had with Fairfax Councilmember David Weinsoff, who happens to be Fairfax’s delegate to ABAG, though the discussion may have descended into Agenda 21/CittaSlow madness. (Patch)
  • Untangling the affordable housing mess caused by redevelopment agencies’ abrupt closure on February 1 will take quite a while to untangle, but surely the State Legislature can handle it, right? (Pacific Sun)
  • Marin is the least affordable place to live in the Bay Area, if one adds the cost of transportation to the cost of housing.  A new study shows that Marinites spend an average of 56.3% of their income on housing and transportation, compared to the 39.5% San Franciscans spend. (Chronicle)

And…: Sausalito repaves a street that hasn’t seen work in 70 years. (IJ) … San Rafael’s plastic bag ban chugs along despite a threatened lawsuit by plastics makers. (Patch) … Stand Up for Neighborly Novato will merge with Novato Housing Coalition so as to better focus their efforts to promote affordable housing in the city. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Arlington County, Virginia, has a number of bikes in its vehicle fleet, saving them money on gas, car maintenance, and also on employee health benefits and sick days.  How might Marin’s communities utilize bicycles in their vehicle fleets?  (Patch)
  • SimCity 5 announced, and the shouts of urbanists around the world rose as one. (Stop and Move)
  • Amtrak wants to restrict the number of bikes allowed on Capital Corridor trains, as around 10% of riders now bring their own bicycle and it’s becoming a nuisance to non-bikers.  Amtrak ought to strongly encourage bicycling, however, as active living and bicycling culture tends to go hand-in-hand with rail ridership. (Sacramento Bee)
  • Since the ban on cell phones while driving went into effect in California, traffic deaths have dropped an astounding 22%, the largest drop since CHP started keeping records. (Mercury News via IJ)

Leaving ABAG Would Be a Mistake

Image from the Town of Corte Madera

Over the last year, rage against the Bay Area’s alphabet soup of regional authorities has simmered just below the surface of Marin politics.  Although the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) got its share of hate for banning fires over Christmas and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) caught flack for housing mandates around SMART, it was the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and its Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) process that drew the most fire by forcing localities to zone for more housing.  Marinites think their cities are already built out and so were incensed that an unelected agency could tell them to zone for more development.  The frustration has finally boiled over in Corte Madera, and there’s a push for the town to leave ABAG.  It would be a mistake if it did.

Background: The State of Local Control

The RHNA process comes once every seven years, driven by a state mandate to accommodate affordable housing within the state’s regions.  Sacramento directs regional agencies – ABAG in the Bay Area, SANDAG in San Diego – to assess housing needs in the area and assign a number of housing units regional towns, cities, and counties must zone for.  Marin has had trouble keeping up with the RHNA cycle and only now are the last towns finishing their housing plans.  Unfortunately, they took so long to finish that the next RHNA cycle is about to begin, dropping voters with more homes to zone for just as they figured out how to zone for the last bunch.

This cycle will be different.  ABAG is working with MTC, BAAQMD, and the Bay Coastal Development Commission (BCDC) to develop a regional Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), tying housing allocations to transportation, air quality, and water quality.  This unprecedented level of regional coordination means communities will need to work within the still-incomplete SCS or face financial penalties, as the regional agencies control and disburse a great deal of federal and state funds.  After going through a round of grueling negotiations over the last cycle’s allocations and angst over the loss of local control, the SCS is just one more thing for local politicians to worry about.

Pulling Out

Into this walked Corte Madera’s ABAG representative, Councilwoman Carla Condon.  For months she has argued that the association is trampling local rights, pursuing a social engineering project to make Corte Madera look like Oakland.  Mayor Bob Ravasio concurs, and would rather receive housing allocations directly from Sacramento.

I’m on record against these allocations – they distort the housing market and do rob cities of local control.  Yet I also know these allocations can do a great deal of good.  The densities mandated are not excessively high, and are met or exceeded in many parts of Marin, and they can give municipal councils an excuse to add housing near transit and historic downtowns.

Withdrawing from ABAG, as Corte Madera is considering, would not change either of those realities.  By dealing directly with the state, Corte Madera would be setting itself up to deal with a bigger bureaucracy with less chance of coming out on top.  As well, pulling out of ABAG could create a logistical mess for Corte Madera at other regional agencies, as transportation funding and support will be tied to the RHNA process, making even more work for town staff to sort out the inconsistencies with every other government in the region.

Far better would be for Corte Madera to spearhead a Marin County housing subregion.  ABAG allows localities to create subregions that can assign their own affordable housing needs.  Although ABAG still gives the subregion a total number of units, the subregion can assign those units however it likes.  A hypothetical Marin subregion would reestablish a modicum of local control over the allocations, allowing amenable cities, like Mill Valley or San Rafael, to take more units while others, like Corte Madera or Novato, would receive fewer.  Allocation would happen through the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers, so all localities would have a say in how allocations are made.

Alas, such a subregion would apply not to this coming RHNA cycle but the next, as the deadline for subregional formation passed last March.  As well, it’s unlikely Corte Madera would be able to pull out of ABAG for this coming cycle either, meaning any reform will need to come from within ABAG or be in preparation for the rather distant future.  Given the major bureaucratic reforms coming with One Bay Area, it’s too soon to say if the regional agencies will be too difficult for Marinites to handle.  In the interim, Councilwoman Condon should focus more on shaping the final RHNA numbers to Corte Madera’s liking than trying to pull the city out of the ABAG altogether.

The SMART Area, Part 1: Land Use

Looking east on Fourth towards downtown. Photo from the Downtown SMART Station Area Plan

Over the next few days I’ll be posting my impressions and comments regarding the San Rafael SMART Station Area Plan.  It’s such a large, complicated, and potentially game-changing document that it needs more than just a single post.  Today we tackle land use.  Subsequent posts will examine parking, mobility, and the future of the area.

San Rafael has released its draft downtown SMART Station Area Plan, and I must say that I’m excited.  So many good policies are wrapped into this – reducing parking requirements, form-based zoning, traffic calming, street engagement – that it has the potential to change the face of San Rafael and Marin by showing what can be accomplished with sensible zoning and real walkability.  While not a 180-degree turn in local planning practices, it’s pushing that direction.  If comments from the Planning Commission are any indication, there’s a hunger to go all the way, and that can only mean good things.

If you’re just joining us

San Rafael’s Station Area Plans cover the immediate areas around the upcoming Civic Center (for another post) and downtown SMART stations.  The downtown station will be located at the current site of Whistlestop Wheels and will be the terminus for the system’s Initial Operating Segment (IOS), which will extend north to Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa, roughly 37 miles away.

To prepare for the incoming train, San Rafael convened the Advisory Committee, consisting of representatives from San Rafael; the San Rafael Redevelopment Agency; SMART; the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District (GGB), which operates GGT; Marin County; Marin Transit; and the Transportation Authority of Marin.  Their mission: to create the first real transit-oriented, mixed-use communities in Marin since the end of the Northwest Pacific Railroad in 1941.

This location is almost antithetical to transit-oriented development, located as it is next to the elevated section of Highway 101 that cuts San Rafael in half.  Second and Third are extremely busy arterials that function as extended freeway ramps, and the area is dominated by parking lots and auto-oriented uses, such as gas stations and body shops.

Almost antithetical, but not quite.  The station neighbors the Bettini Transit Center, which has buses departing frequently to all over the Bay Area and sees thousands of riders per day, and the Fourth Street commercial corridor.  Existing residential neighborhoods have a strong walking component, even under the freeway.  In other words, the neighborhood may be ugly but it is the transit and commercial nexus of the county, and that makes it ripe for redevelopment.

Better zoning

The key to development in this area is fairly basic: make it a place people want to walk around in and stay through safe sidewalks and streets, calm traffic, interesting sights and sounds, and high degrees of connectivity.  This is exactly what the plan advocates.

For land use, the plan recommends increasing height limits along Heatherton to 66 feet, enough for five-story structures, and to raise the limit to 56 feet along Irwin, as well as along Fourth Street to Grand.  Within these zones, the floor-area ratio would be raised to 2.0 and 1.5, respectively, while both areas would see density requirements lifted.  Residential uses would not count towards FAR, while parking minimums would be relaxed, although not eliminated.

I wrote last week about the need for residential development within the core, and the above would aid immensely in this endeavor.  Conceptual plans for the blocks immediately surrounding the station show the possibility of hundreds of new homes.  Given that a household can support 73 square feet of retail, just the example developments would support close to 20,000 square feet of retail.  Given the slack retail market in San Rafael, this will be a major boon to neighboring businesses.  With office development and the centrality of San Rafael to Marin, retail is likely to do extremely well.

The Montecito Neighborhood Association, which represents homeowners along Fifth Street between Irwin and Grand, complained that increasing height along Fourth on their block would overshadow their homes, and I’m inclined to agree.  Really aggressive land-use liberalization could accomplish the same goal of pulling the downtown core across the freeway without increasing heights at all.  Perhaps the city could lift lot coverage maximums, implement a setback maximum, and lift parking requirements while maintaining a two-story height limit.

I hope that the Montecito Neighborhood Association will not come out against larger portions of the plan than just those that would effect their own homes, and so far they have limited their strong opposition to just those recommended changes on the eastern side of the freeway. If they do begin to oppose developments in places that would not effect their homes, San Rafael could have a problem on their hands.

I’m concerned about crowding out the possibility of a second track through town, however.  If the system performs better than anyone expects, it could lead to major problems down the line and severely limit capacity.  I don’t want planning now to put a ceiling on the system if we don’t have to.

In any event, these land use patterns are new and innovative for Marin.  The Planning Commission was strongly in favor of the plan, and some even wished it would go further, instituting parking maximums or abolishing the minimum altogether, but they also felt that San Rafael was not ready for that sort of thing.  This sort of change comes slowly, and the Station Area Plan is the first step.

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